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5.1 Choosing a Topic

Learning Objectives

  1. Recognize general topics that are too broad for a single writing assignment.
  2. Realize that you can and should massage a writing topic so that it interests you.
  3. Understand how to narrow a topic down to match your needs.

Life is simply too short not to write about topics that interest you. You don’t have to be an expert in a topic already, but you should be sufficiently interested in exploring it for a sustained period. Your readers will quickly pick up on your enthusiasm (or lack thereof) for a topic. Following up on personal interest can, at best, make a writing project fun, and at the very least, keep you (and your readers) from being miserable.

Most college writing instructors will not dictate too narrow a topic area, in part because they don’t have any interest in being bored and in part because they believe that topic generation is an important piece of the student writer’s job. But let’s explore a worst-case scenario, just to show how you can make practically any topic your own. Let’s say you are given an assignment to explore the history of South Dakota within a ten-page essay. Clearly, you can’t cover the whole state in ten pages. Rather, you would think about—and maybe research a little bit—aspects of South Dakota that might be interesting to you and your readers. Let’s say that you are a motorcycle enthusiast, and you are interested in Sturgis, South Dakota. Or perhaps your great-great-grandmother was a Dakota Indian, and you are interested in the Dakota Indian tribe. Or maybe you are an artist and you are interested in the corn mosaics on the Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota. The point is that, if you think about South Dakota enough, you can find some direction of personal interest.


Assigned Topic

The History of South Dakota

Personal Interest Direction

The Motorcycle Rallies in Sturgis, South Dakota

First Narrowing of Topic

The Acceptance by Locals of the Mass Influx of Motorcycles over the Years

Final Topic

The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally as Part of the Identity of Sturgis and the Surrounding Area

Once you choose a direction of interest, such as the motorcycle rallies in Sturgis, you still have to narrow this secondary topic into a topic that you can cover in ten pages and that has an interesting point. A method of moving from your general topic of interest to your final topic is to ask questions and let your answers guide you along. The following questions and answers show how this self-discussionAsking and answering questions without involving another person. could go.

Question #1: How do the Sturgis Rallies connect to the history of South Dakota?

Answer: The Sturgis Rallies have been going on for over seventy years, so they are part of the history of South Dakota.

Question #2: Over the years, how have the people of Sturgis felt about all those bikes invading their peaceful little city?

Answer: I bet there are people on both sides of the issue. On the other hand, a lot of people there make a great deal of money on the event.

Question #3: After over seventy years, has the event become such a part of the city that the bikes aren’t really seen as an invasion but rather more like a season that will naturally come?

Answer: It probably has become a natural part of the city and the whole surrounding area. That would be a good topic: The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally as Part of the Identity of Sturgis and the Surrounding Area.

You have begun to narrow your general topic down to a more manageable and interesting set of questions. Now it’s time to bring in the other elements of the rhetorical situation.

Key Takeaways

  • Before starting a writing project, you need to narrow the topic down so that it matches the length of the essay you are to write.
  • Most writing topics can be viewed in a variety of directions, and when you are writing, you should take a topic in a direction that interests you.
  • Self-discussion is a helpful method when trying to narrow a topic down to a manageable size.


  1. Record the thought processes you would go through to narrow the writing topic “Thomas Edison” to a topic of interest to you for a ten-page assignment. Include the transcript of your self-talk and self-questioning process.
  2. Work with a partner. Together, talk through moving from the general topic “Television” to a specific topic that would work well for a five-page paper.
  3. With a partner or by yourself, narrow the following general topic areas to specific topics that would work in essays of approximately one thousand words:

    1. Electoral Politics
    2. Environmental Protection
    3. The First Amendment
    4. Campus Security